The birth of Adagio Ballet Boutique (abbr. Adagio) is a coincidence, it has never been in my plan, it is something I haven’t even dreamt about. I never meant to step into the commercial world, retailing, dancewear industry, nor becoming a solopreneur. Starting a business of my own and on my own is out of the scope of my interest, knowledge and personal traits. The simple thought of it puts me on edge because numbers have not been my friend, but rather I lean into literature and arts, understanding the world through a lens that is expressive, interpretive, imaginative and transient. From having the idea about Adagio, to actually putting it in action into an ecommerce business (this website you are reading is merely one part of it) is, indeed, a miracle itself. Since the soft-launch on 26 November, 2021, Adagio has only been around for 4 months, which is just like an infant with a blank slate, fragile, powerless but full of possibilities. The story I’m going to tell is not a story of glory or success, but a story of struggle and hope. There is nothing glamorous, but only sweat and mud in a battlefield in both the business and personal arena, because there is a person behind Adagio, who is struggling like everyone does.
The search for dancewear
A piece of leotard was only a functional gear for me in the first few years into ballet. I used to attend classes with a leotard, tights and soft shoes only, thinking that skirts/ shorts or anything else were simply unnecessary. It was until COVID-19 started hitting Hong Kong in the early 2020, I started to look into dancewear brands that are known for their quality. From well-established brands to emerging brands, I tirelessly tried and tested 50+ brands from different parts of the world, studied closely about fabrics, design, fit, cutting and even sewing and stitching of different pieces of dancewear, only to find out the best of the best. Be it a small thread poking out, the elastic digging into the groin area, or the stitches not even enough, such pieces will not be qualified to stay in my wardrobe. No matter how pretty they are in appearance, if they don’t serve the purpose functionally well enough, they are not what I’m looking for. In this process, I discovered brands that consistently deliver quality that surprised me and became one of their supporters. Check out the blog post ‘Top 10+1 dancewear brands in 2021’ for a compiled list of the leaders in the industry.
The pain point as a customer
In the search process for dancewear, I encountered several major challenges which may resonate with your experience too, namely, the lack of choices in traditional brick-and-mortar dancewear shops; extraordinarily high shipping fee, inaccessibility due to language and rugged customer experience in the checkout process in online shops, not to mention the lack of a central hub gathering various selection of dancewear brands that are outside of the hot spot. Without a doubt, major dancewear brands which are available in local dancewear shops like Capezio, Bloch, Grishko, Chacott etc. have been around for a long time and they create beautiful dancewear collections with quality you can definitely trust. Yet, if you are looking for something more unique, lesser-known but still with the quality comparable to or even outperform the major brands, it takes much more rounds of trial and error, until you find those brands that are worthy to be recognized for what they have to offer. There seems to be a gap between these unique brands and dancers who are looking for dancewear, often leaving dancers feeling lost and frustrated.
The velvet skirt that leads to Adagio
The preliminary idea came from a velvet SAB (School of American Ballet) skirt, a pull-on mini skirt design that visually elongates the legline. Since the skirt hugs around the waist and hip area, I was feeling a bit body conscious with my lower belly with a SAB skirt and I decided to resell it on a local second hand platform in July 2020. Since then, I have resold numerous leotards, skirts, warm-ups and pointe shoes which are still in excellent condition. Reselling not only gives dancewear a second life, it also reduces fashion waste, therefore, the SAB skirt became an inspiration for me to set up a pre-owned dancewear platform on Instagram, in which I received consignment from other dancers and continuously posted about these dancewear for sale, at the same time I managed group orders to purchase from various dancewear brands in order to save shipping fee together with other dancers.
Pre-owned dancewear platform
I named the Instagram account for selling pre-owned dancewear as ‘Adagio Dancewear’ at that time. According to BalletHub, adagio refers to “slow movement, typically performed with the greatest amount of grace and fluidity than other movements of dance.” Although slow in speed, adagio movements actually take a lot of body control to articulate. Figuratively, adagio is just like a flowing river, quietly, continuously, moving along the riverbank (i.e. music). Instead of simply performing a series of steps in a robotic fashion, it is the moment to feel the music, go into the music and speak with the language of movement, particularly through épaulement, placement and movement of the upper body, even extending beyond the fingers. Adagio echoes with my way of life that is grounded on gentleness, mindfulness and grace, hence it speaks to me naturally.
Connecting with dancers around the world
While managing the pre-owned dancewear platform, I had the opportunity to connect with adult ballet dancers from all walks of life and from different parts of the globe, in which I came across stories of beautiful human souls, working hard, preserving and striving for the best only because of the shared passion towards ballet. I also participated in the Fiesta de Ballet in July 2021, bringing the platform from online to offline. Although the effort being put into the preparation process for this event did not pay off, it was such a wonderful experience meeting ballet friends and customers in real life, which further strengthened my determination to rebrand Adagio into an ecommerce business.
Me and my childhood friend, Osanna, who generously assisted me in Fiesta de Ballet 2021.
Shopping as a ‘therapy’(?)
Even though the period I was so into researching, purchasing, trying on dancewear is actually conducive to the development of the current ecommerce business, on the other hand, it is also a dark period. My life at that time was rather stagnant, I was constantly seeking psychological stimulation from looking at and shopping for new products up to a point that feels like addiction. The excitement and happiness from consumption is short-lived, and I craved for more. Shopping seems to be therapeutic, when I devoted time and energy into it, I was trying to escape from dealing with difficult emotions that arose from family and relationship issues. Day after day, I was feeling empty, I was lost, I was numb, I was disconnected with myself. It was until the foot injury that forced me to pause and review what was happening (see ‘My injury journey’). The newly gained sense of awareness about my inner world helps me to process my emotions in a much more constructive way. Instead of numbing myself from pain and also joy, I allowed myself to fully experience different kinds of emotions, accept them, stay with them, and be curious about them. Integrating what I have learnt about vulnerability and authenticity from Brené Brown, I stepped out of my comfort zone, explored different options and realized that my potential is far greater than what I previously knew, as long as I remove the barriers for myself. I began to see myself in a new light with more empathy and acceptance rather than self-doubts and self-criticism, from a strength-based perspective rather than a deficit-based perspective, which brought me to the idea of inspiring people through this business platform.
Turning an interest into a business
A year after I started the pre-owned dancewear platform, the idea of building an actual dancewear ecommerce business emerged, yet the motivation slowly faded with the reality of having to manage various commitments and I pushed the idea to the back of my mind until I finally decided to make it happen by all means at some point. I started gathering information, reviewing product catalogues, developing brand strategy, designing brand identity, the website and packaging, writing content, learning about SEO (search engine optimization), marketing, social commerce, accounting…and the list goes on, basically self-learning all the skills needed. In 2 months time, I pushed myself to the limit and made Adagio ready to be soft launched with the deadline I set for myself.
The struggle at the moment
Starting a business is not easy at all, but maintaining a business is even more difficult. I keep questioning myself whether I can really handle the million things that I have on hand and I have to reprioritize different commitments in order to make the best use of time. At some point recently I feel like I’m in a wild jungle alone, extremely lost, not knowing where I’m going, where to start, or even where I’m standing. There are no maps, no signposts, no formulas. Standing still, I kept learning about how to keep the business growing in a sustainable way and developed a strategic foresight for the future years to come. Feeling motivated after gaining a sense of direction, I pushed myself to another limit with new goals for the business and personal life, ambitiously planned a packed routine and schedule, yet there is just too much on the plate that makes me feel so overwhelmed. I started to ponder, is it worth it?
Creating the future
The answer is still a YES. My vision for Adagio is far greater than a business by creating values beyond money. This platform is not only for selling dancewear, but also for voicing and raising awareness on body image, self-worth and mental health with the ultimate goal to bring positive influence to the adult ballet world. Even if there is just one person who reads my story, it is still worth it, just as how a young man was saving starfish on the beach in the parable written by Loren Eiseley (see below for the excerpt from The Star Thrower).
While I’m finding my own path in the wilderness, I’m truly grateful to my customers, business partners and friends for their valuable feedback and guidance, especially Valerija, the co-founder of one of my favourite brands, Just A Corpse, and Sun, the founder of Releve, the brand which produced the most supreme ballet skirts, for sharing their personal experience which inspired me a lot. I came to realize that everyone is on their own path, working hard to create the future despite uncertainties, what we have in common is, we love ballet.
Excerpt from The Star Thrower
“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?" The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean." "I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.
To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said,
"It made a difference for that one.”